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The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recently announced two new COVID-19 initiatives aimed at achieving stricter enforcement of workplace safety standards during the remainder of the COVID-19 pandemic. As previously discussed, OSHA launched these initiatives in response to an executive order from President Biden directing OSHA to focus enforcement efforts against violators that put the largest number of workers at serious risk, as well as on employers that retaliate against employees who complain about unsafe conditions in the workplace.

The first of these initiatives is a COVID-19 National Emphasis Program (NEP) Directive. It requires each OSHA Region to dedicate additional resources to inspecting worksites for COVID-19 related hazards. The NEP requires targeted inspections in high-hazard industries, including healthcare, meat and poultry processing, supermarkets, restaurants, and correctional institutions. Appendices A and B to the NEP provide a complete list of businesses that may be targeted for inspections. Worksites previously inspected for COVID-19 related hazards will be prioritized for re-inspection to ensure effective abatement.    

OSHA’s goal to increase worksite inspections for COVID-19 seeks to address low enforcement levels in the first 12 months of the pandemic. In 2020, only about 10% of federal workplace safety inspections were virus-related, and the likelihood of an employer being cited was below OSHA’s average citation rates. The NEP requires every OSHA Region to prioritize increasing these percentages.

The second initiative is an update to OSHA’s Interim Enforcement Response Plan (IERP). It provides new instructions and guidance to OSHA enforcement officers for conducting inspections and responding to workplace safety complaints related to the COVID-19 pandemic. While OSHA will continue to utilize remote methods of inspection when on-site inspections cannot be performed safely, the IERP prioritizes the use of on-site workplace inspections. 

The IERP provides references to a variety of resources. By way of example, one reference is to the U.S. Department of Labor’s COVID-19 Workplace Safety Plan to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission. It shows the types of issues, policies and components that employers should consider in drafting a workplace safety plan or return to work guidelines. 

Meanwhile, even though OSHA missed President Biden’s initial deadline of March 15 for issuing a COVID-19 Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS), OSHA has signaled that it intends to issue an ETS in the coming weeks. 

In light of OSHA’s new enforcement programs and the likelihood of an ETS that will impose mandatory workplace safety measures aimed at reducing the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace, employers should revisit their COVID-19 workplace policies and begin to update theme as needed.